Authors: Dell Magazine Authors
Mirrors are no solution to this twitch
Time just doesn't allow for much self-reflection
The author tells us inspiration for his second
tale came from a quote attributed to Margaret Atwood, “I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one ‘race'—the human race—and that we are all members of it,” and E.M. Forster's comment, “Only connect.” Zachary's story shares their sentiment that human beings are always better off building bridges than walls.
"We're burying your grandpa tomorrow,” Dad tells me. Not, Poppa died, son. Or, I'm sorry, Mike, but your grandpa passed away last night. Nope. First thing when I answer the phone, We're burying your grandpa tomorrow.
"Was it easy for him?” I ask. “Was he asleep when it happened?"
Dad sighs. “No. He was up all night. At the end he asked for you."
That hurts. I can't think of anything to say to it. For a moment I imagine Grandpa, blood dried on the white stubble of his chin. Snot dried above his mouth. It feels pretty bad to see that right now, but when I try to imagine anything else I fail.
"Shit,” I say. “I'm sorry, Pop."
It sounds like bullshit, far too little. Still, what can I say that won't sound trite?
Dad grunts. I listen and I suppose he listens on the other end. We listen together, maybe trying to think of more to say. Something heavy and unwieldy lies between us, about this and everything else.
"You have to come home, son,” he finally says.
I nod, but he can't hear that.
It's August 3, 2039. 2:32 pm.
I wait five hours and then call work to tell them I won't be in tonight, pack a bag and step out the door. It's 7:59. The drive from Portland to Boston takes three hours. It used to take two, but that was before they cordoned off the city into districts. Little Bangkok. Little Ethiopia. Guatemalita. And more generally, the Black, Yellow, Brown, and Red Districts, surrounding and eating up the smaller neighborhoods, assimilating them into America.
I've got a hangover I can't shake and I haven't gone to see my family in eight months. Before that, it was about a year. Grandpa was sick then, too, but then again he's been sick since I was ten years old.
"He has too much white man in him,” Dad explained to me. I was eleven or twelve.
"Do I have too much in me?” I asked. Some of the kids in school had started wearing dark foundation. Two years after the virus killed all the whites, it had become a fashion statement to be dark. Like having the right shoes or the newest quikfone.
Dad held my hand close to his face and squinted. He said, “You look Indian enough to me, son."
Of course, now I know the fear that underlay these concerns. Even if I don't understand it. My memory of white people isn't clear, but it is benign. Mostly, I remember how they smelled, lemony and astringent like a spray you use to clean your sink. Why this is, and if it's true, I can't say.
I pull into the driveway at 10:41. The lights are on all over the house. Shit. I was hoping everyone had gone to bed. Especially Mom, because she'll start crying all over again when I walk in the door, and not just about Grandpa.
"We don't see you enough,” she tells me all the time. “You live so close, Mike."
My brother, he's in there already, all the way from Philadelphia. I can feel him. I bet he told his boss what had happened and within an hour had the kids packed up and on the road. Six hours, which means he's been here for an hour.
Last time I talked to him, about two months ago, he asked me, “Why's it so hard for you to love your family, Mike? Why's it always look like you swallowed something rotten the moment you walk in the door?"
It's not important what I said in response. We've had the conversation more than a few times. If he doesn't get it now, he won't ever.
I shut the car door softly because I don't want everyone rushing out. My mother, hands to her mouth, looking like she's about to collapse. Hugging me as if there's a chance I'll float away. My brother, clapping me on the shoulder. A brave smile for the two of us, taking care of things.
And Dad. Yeah, and Dad. Standing at the top of the steps, hands in his pockets, staring down at me, looking me over, reading something in my posture, the way I wear my clothes.
An expression on his face. As if he can't quite place me.
I knock on the door and everyone crowds around me in the foyer. After Mom's done soaking my shoulder and Ben's patted my back, Dad shakes my hand. I look him in the eye. He looks right back, but there's no warmth, no nothing.
"How was the drive?” he asks me.
"Fine,” I say. “Like clockwork."
"How's the job?"
"Good. Can't complain."
And just like that, we're caught up.
We all shuffle inside. My niece and nephew are asleep on the couch. In the kitchen Mom pours four glasses of wine. The bottle is nearly empty, which tells me she and Dad have been at it. As if on cue, she tells me Vikram's coming over in a little while. My cousin. Which means his wife and their kids. The kids will wake up my niece and nephew, Vikram and my father will argue.
I won't be going to sleep for a while.
I grab a few aspirin out of the medicine drawer, sit down across from Dad and drink half my wine before anyone's said anything.
"Do you know what happened to Vikram?” Mom asks me.
How would I know, Mom?
I almost say. Instead, I shake my head.
"Oh, Lord,” she says. “Mitul, it was so awful. I don't even like talking about it."
Dad grunts. Gets up for a beer.
Mom leans forward and grabs my wrist. “They broke his wrists,” she tells me. “Vikram was only buying some fireworks for the fourth, and they almost killed him. They kicked him in the face, in the chest. He was in the hospital for seven hours, Mitul. He has scars on his face. All for buying fireworks."
"It wasn't that,” Dad says. “He shouldn't have been there alone. They're crazy. Vikram's an idiot for being there in the first place."
Mom looks at me like I'm a fool. “Where do people buy fireworks, Mitul? He was in Chinatown. Harrison Avenue. You know we used to take you kids there when you were little.” She shivers, then thrusts a hand at Ben.
"And Bhanu lives only three streets over from where it happened!"
Dutifully, Ben speaks up. “That's true, Mom.” He turns to me. “It's true."
I look at him until he looks down at his fone again.
I decide we need another bottle of wine. As I stand, Dad walks out from behind the counter and sits down again.
"And now your grandpa's dead,” he says.
I can't see him but I know the words are meant for me. I grab a bottle from atop the fridge and open it, keeping my head down. The four of us have fallen into the kind of silence that happens after someone says webe, fligger, 7-11, or buttonhead. Whoever breaks that kind of silence always ends up feeling exposed. Maybe even a little guilty.
"What does Grandpa dying have to do with Vikram?” I ask.
Dad shrugs. Ben sips his wine. Mom gets fidgety.
"It's just so sad,” she says. “We should all get along."
I look at my watch. It's only 11:06.
Sometimes it seems like all we talk about is race. I suppose it's understandable. Drive through Portland and there are clear lines between your neighborhood and mine. In the larger cities there are walls. We all watch each other, waiting for somebody to make a move. We make excuses for violence.
Don't look at me like that, buttonhead.
Was it anything like this before? Dad says it was worse, that the violence now is the last vestige of white influence still corrupting the system, but I've learned not to trust what he says when it comes to race.
Like the textbooks, Dad doesn't use the word genocide. Or racism.
I don't think the state of the world has anything to do with white people. We didn't erect walls because white men told us to. Just the same, we're not violent because there are no Caucasians around to keep things peaceful. No. We are what we are out of instinct to defend ourselves.
You could be next,
a collective voice warns.
You could be destroyed too, and become just a fading memory.A bunch of books written about your “culture,” a few dioramas in a goddamn museum.
We've become racial and cultural purists by default.
When I married a Vietnamese woman, Dad asked, “Don't you think that's just a little too close, Mike? Maybe you should rethink things.” Later he said, “I'm not comfortable with her coming around here, her and her parents. No, I don't want to know them. Their eyes are barely slanted. They're too light. One of them starts coughing, I go for the shotgun."
I don't remember what I said to him. Justin was just eight months old. Even then I wanted to shield him from such language. His eyes weren't slanted either. He looked like me, only lighter. I wonder what difference it would have made to Dad if my son were half white, and smelled of lemon cleaner.
So I stopped coming around the house. I kept my wife and kid from Dad. Sometimes Mom came by, sometimes other relatives, but I could tell Linh made them uncomfortable. Justin made them even more uncomfortable. They held him slightly out from their bodies, as if they couldn't handle being too close.
Sometimes I wonder if they were secretly grateful he died along with my wife. Terrible thing to think of your family, but the human mind's not always pretty. Dad, at least, could be read easily. Linh and Justin's deaths did not so much make him happy as validate his view of the world.
"I fought for you, son. I fought to keep things like this from happening anymore."
That's what Dad said to me at the funeral, January 15, 2032.
I thought it was in extremely bad taste.
"My wife and child were killed by people like you,” I told him. Though my voice was calm, I hit him hard enough to knock three teeth out of his head. He had to be taken to the hospital. Ambulance drove right into the cemetery.
He never apologized. Neither did I.
At 11:42, Vikram and Eta walk through the door. The kids follow, color and noise, new clothes, squeaky shoes with white rubber soles. They're not attractive, Yuvati, Wali, and Dinar. They're fat and spoiled-looking. They look like miniature Vikrams.
"Hello, Mike,” Vikram's wife says to me. A chubby hand on my upper arm, warmth I can feel through my shirtsleeve.
"Hello, Eta,” I say. “Hello, cousin. Want some wine?"
She nods. Vikram wrinkles his nose. He doesn't hug me or offer his hand to shake. The Chinatown beating must have been a while ago, or not nearly as bad as Mom said it was. He's got no scars on his face, no wrist brace.
"How's the job?” he asks.
"Fine,” I say.
I know what he thinks of my job working security at the Clinton. I know he'll never forgive me for turning down his offer of an interview. “I can offer you something with a future,” he said. It was probably true, but working for him would be almost as bad as working at the shop with Dad. A foot on the small of my back all day.
I pour Eta a glass. Frowning, Vikram stares at it in her hand.
"How was the drive?” he asks.
I pour myself a glass. “Not too good, Vick. Grandpa's dead."
His eyes widen. He rocks back on his heels. “Of course, Mike. I didn't mean to imply anything. Of course the ride was awful. You had that on your mind.” Awkwardly, he puts a hand on my shoulder. “But we're here for each other. It's times like these that you really appreciate what you have. Family. We have to remember the blessings. Grandpa's suffering is over. It's been hard on all of us, but thank God it's finally over."
Vikram turned seventeen on the day the video announcing the virus leaked onto the internet. December 11, 2017. He remembers when the white kids started coughing in class. Calling in sick. Most of them didn't come back after Christmas break, and those who did quickly realized it wasn't a good idea.
"My best friend was white,” Vikram tells anyone who will listen. “Two of my classmates were beaten to death in the gym bathroom. Everybody was afraid of getting the virus, even me. Some of the kids, I swear to God I didn't even think they were white! But we got through it, all of us together."
Vikram wears these experiences like badges. Or wounds. He talks like someone who survived a war. Who the hell knows what side he thinks he was on.
Ben was only eight when it happened. Back then everyone called him Bhanu, not just Mom. I don't know what he remembers of the virus. He won't talk about it. His expression hardens, his ears close up. He interrupts the conversation as if it hasn't been happening.
He pretends the world is the way it's always been. For my niece and nephew, there's no question this is the way the world is. The white people are all underground or carried away on the wind.
But that doesn't mean they're gone. We breathe them in. They're in everything we eat. We burned their corpses and their ashes blanketed the whole Earth.
"Why do you have to dwell on these things?” Mom asks me every time I start talking about the virus. “Why can't you leave it alone?"
She's never implied she approves of Dad's support, his vote, but this is incidental.
"You really think he did the right thing, Mom?” I ask. “If he's a hero, why isn't there a memorial? We could have a shrine. With his favorite quotes."
"Mitul,” Mom says, and looks away.
She changes the subject to something sunnier. She's like Ben in a lot of ways. She accepts that the world is what it is.
Dad quotes Malcolm X, Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Allen Pan, though I don't think he understands what they're talking about. Arguing with him is like arguing with a religious fanatic. You have no chance of winning the argument. If he has any doubts, they were buried too far down for anybody to touch.